Steve inhales distant smoke.
Well, not that distant. Just up the hill. The hill he wasn’t allowed to climb.
The two Dora Milaje guards who stand with him make that clear. They’re there for his own protection, he knows that, but he knows they’re also there to stop him rushing up that hill.
He can hear it all. It's muffled, but he can still make out what’s going on.
His chest aches with each word. His heart throbs. Feels like fingers digging in and carving it out.
“He’s not going to hurt me.”
He gets a hard stare in response. He stands back against the tree and hears it crack somewhere inside.
“You may believe so, but he still poses a danger.”
“He won’t,” Steve protests, and imagines a little twig of a thing pleading with his mom to let him play in the rain with the one friend he had.
He’d gotten his first bout of pneumonia and a week off of school but it’d been worth it.
“Please,” He tries.
“Only when Ayo allows it,” She almost looks regretful, “You are free to join him when she does.”
He crosses his arms and digs his fingertips into muscle.
“Why’d you allow me all the way out here if you weren’t going to let me up there?”
“You’ve subdued him when under control before,” She says, and Steve can hear a whisper of the next trigger.
“He’s not… he doesn’t need to be subdued.”
“If this procedure is not successful, he may well need to be.”
“It’ll work,” Steve isn’t certain, not really, but he has to say it. Because it has to be true. He can’t think any other way.
Steve breathes in. Out. Toys with the frayed material of his suit so much so that it splits. Wanda is gonna go mad when he gets back. She’d just sorted it out after their last mission in Prague.
He waits. Halts even breathing, for a second, and he knows the guards beside him are doing the same.
And nothing. There’s nothing.
You are free.
“Sorry,” He says, and pushes past them both.
He climbs up the side of the hill and trips up the harsh, mountainous terrain. It doesn’t matter, not really. He just climbs until he spots the source of the smoke.
Ayo lays a hand on his shoulder as he steps forward, and meets his eyes.
“Be gentle,” She commands, and really, his first instinct is to laugh.
Because. Because how could he not? Every tender part of him is reserved for Bucky. They belong to him. His heart and his soul and his very being.
They would always.
“Of course,” He says anyway, low and quiet, and smiles her way. Probably looks more like a grimace, but she nods back anyway. “Thank you, Ayo. Thank you so much.”
“He has thanked me enough for the both of you,” She smiles, then, and it's the first time he’s seen her do so. “Go to him.”
She leaves back the way he came, much more graceful in her movements.
Bucky sits beside the fire. His legs are crossed with his hands pressed together between them. His hair, in his face, glows in the licks of flame that dance as Steve stands and watches.
Bucky looks up, his face so open and vulnerable it takes Steve’s breath away and chokes him with it.
It's a lot like that day in the warehouse in Europe, with the arm in a vice and helicopters circling and newspaper in his shoes.
“She said I’m free,” He chokes, like he can’t get it out, doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying. His face contorts as he cries freely. “They didn’t work.”
Steve hurts, and he wants to rip his heart out. It's Bucky’s. Only Bucky’s.
“Sweetheart,” He lowers himself to the dirt and the ash. Bucky’s shaking, the chatter of his teeth fills the air, and Steve can’t bear it. “Oh, Buck.”
“Steve,” Bucky says his name like he’s not entirely present.
“I’m here,” He slides his hand into Bucky’s and presses his mouth to the back of it. “I’m right here.”
Bucky swallows, harsh and broken. “It doesn’t feel real.”
“It is, you hearin’ me?” Steve presses his forehead to Bucky’s temple, and hears his shaky inhale. “They ain’t got nothing on you anymore.”
Bucky nods, slow as the tremble of his lip, and he angles his head to catch Steve in a kiss. It's a delicate thing, delicate as him, and it makes Steve’s own eyes prick.
“You’re free,” He whispers against Bucky’s mouth, “You’re free, sweetheart.”
Bucky grips him - and when had he moved his hands - and tugs him into a hug. It's tight. It's Bucky burying himself in Steve and Steve welcoming him in.
It's two souls. Free as each other for the first time since drafting papers collecting dust on their kitchen table.
“I got you,” He feels his cheeks wet, and knows it to be true just as well as he knows his name to be Steven Grant Rogers.
Bucky sniffles against his throat, a little more solid, and that’s his best fucking guy. So strong, and a miracle in his hands. Been a miracle to him since the day they met.
“I was so fucking scared,” He says, and Steve wishes he could’ve been there to see the moment Fury shot Pierce. Allow him Captain America watching him bleed out. He wishes he could’ve done to Rumlow what he did to himself. He wishes-
They’d never left for that train.
“It's okay,” Because it is, now, and Bucky is free.
“I know,” Bucky pulls back a little, looks him in the eyes with his own glazed and golden in the flames. “We’re gonna be alright.”
“You know it,” Steve smiles, and Bucky replicates it, albeit hesitant. It's fucking beautiful.
Bucky is free.